Just before releasing a hotly anticipated new album with Sugarland bandmate Kristian Bush, duo frontwoman Jennifer Nettles summed up her history of progressive politics and queer advocacy and love for chicken with one defiant tweet: “Steals recipe for world’s best chicken sandwich and opens ‘Chic-fi-Gay.’ Serves EVERYBODY deliciousness and is open on Sundays. Wins world,” she wrote on May 15, her unfettered outspokenness still a rare but significant thing in country music.
“Or the spinoff of it: It can start as Chick-fil-Gay and then it could just turn into Chick-fil-Heyyy!, which would be super fun too,” she tells me with a robust guffaw.
Bigger, the band’s first release since their long-established country sound was cranked to arena-rock heights on 2010’s The Incredible Machine, reflects on our emotionally and politically strained modern world (their powerful lament, “Tuesday’s Broken,” addresses America’s gun problem and school shootings) with love, hope, unity and inclusiveness, themes near and dear to Sugarland since the release of their 2002 debut. “These are the days of the underdog, the counted out, the ones you don’t see coming; times of the left-behinds…,” Nettles sings on “Not the Only,” counting herself among us. “Silent voices I’ve never heard, all waiting to say the words, held up and kept inside, but we don’t have to hide.”
Here, Nettles wins the world by phoning to talk about Sugarland’s mission to shine a light on the unseen, being political post-Dixie Chicks, and why it’s important for people (see: homophobes) to not get it twisted: that “Mother” lyric is most definitely referring to a gay couple in love.
Did recent world tragedies and the country’s overall divisiveness have anything to do with you getting back to your Sugarland roots?
Yeah. I had been feeling the urges to get back and do something and see what that would feel like again. At first it seemed to be a matter of the calendar, and then we started writing and then when we looked at this collection and what was coming out of us we realized, “Whoa, we have a lot to say, and this is actually the reason for the timing” – that these messages that we have are, well, no pun intended, bigger than what, initially, this reconvening was going to be. It was very much a bigger message for the world.
I hear myself and my community’s struggles represented in some of these songs, and I feel emboldened by them. To what extent was the queer community on your mind while creating this album?
It was on our minds significantly. You hear those messages poke through within the music: messages of unity and inclusion, and of not only tolerance – sometimes tolerance to me is such a… ack!… it’s not even the right word anymore. We need to move beyond just tolerance. And it even needs to move beyond acceptance. It needs to move into celebration and just outright humanism.
I don’t think any person wants to just be tolerated.
Tolerated, no – I don’t even know where that word came from. It’s clear that whoever started throwing that term around was already coming from a defensive standpoint. So that being said, I think you hear those messages celebrated in songs like “Tuesday’s Broken,” “Mother” and “Not the Only,” and even in songs like “Bigger.” But you hear it much more clearly and outright on “Mother,” where it says, “She’s got a ring to give to you she hopes you’ll give away. She don’t care who you give it to, where they’re from, if they pray like you…”
And “first thing she taught you is love is love.”
Yeah, that love is love, right? So you hear it very distinctly and you hear it in the messages of heartaches in “Tuesday’s Broken.” Even in the second verse you don’t know why the teenage girl is on the bed and why she is possibly considering self-harming because of not feeling love and not feeling celebrated and not feeling a part of her community and being online, dear God help us all. So you hear those messages, for sure, throughout.
And for me, obviously always being a champion of the marginalized, always being a champion of those who are being oppressed – and all of these really horribly divisive tones that we hear now in our culture and in our community that have always been there but we’re hearing them now in a way that is super ugly – when you hear those messages of self-love and of inclusion on this record, absolutely the LGBTQA community was on our minds when we were writing this.
In the lyric video for “Mother,” two gay men are seen holding hands. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gay couple featured in a major, mainstream country music video. Is that precisely why you chose to include them?
Yes! I mean, not to say like, “Hey! We’re the first ones in country music to feature a gay couple visually!” But to be able to say, “Just so you know, what you hear in this and what you might be assuming is absolutely visually and literally true. Like, if you might be toiling around with the idea of what this might be about, let’s go ahead and show you.”
It feels bold, but in 2018, I feel like it shouldn’t feel that way.
No, you’re right, it should not feel bold. But the interesting thing is the reason many times it feels bold within the country music community is because everyone talks about the Dixie Chicks syndrome of what we saw all those years ago. I think times are different. I think it is time for people within all of the music community, but especially in the country music community, where we have such a beautifully diverse audience – we are not preaching to the choir here. We are offering messages. We are offering them to hopefully inspire people to be open and think differently for those who may not already.
Did you learn that love is love from your mom?
Absolutely. I have a mother who’s beautifully open and unconditionally loving, not only to myself but to the world and, yeah, she definitely taught me very, very early on.
How have you passed that same sentiment onto your own son?
Magnus is 5, so certain concepts feel abstract in terms of “let me teach you a lesson.” What I do is show him through life. The gay community is a big part of our lives in terms of people. My manager is gay and my personal assistant is gay, and these are people who are family to me. My PA was my roommate all four years of college. You know what I’m saying? It’s a family.
So, it’s in life, it’s just a matter of fact. And if questions arise, as children many times will have, I will be very open and celebratory in that way. But children live what you show them, and if you show them love and if you show them openness, that is what they will enjoy. If you keep them closed off, and you show them hate, that is what they will reflect. So, he reflects my values in that way.
When confronted with backlash from conservative country fans, how do you stay motivated to keep letting your voice be heard in a genre that once sought to quiet artists like, for instance, the Dixie Chicks?
I believe that times are different and social media is an echo chamber. People shout their hate and other people shout hate back. So, I try to be mindful. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to keep people in check. But really, at the end of the day, that’s just noise. The importance is the message that I am putting out there. And if somebody fires back and they don’t like it on social media, who cares. And if people are going to judge someone’s art and someone’s music based on this really new concept of an artist being more personally connected, because now we do have immediate access through social media between fans and artist, then you know, don’t listen to the music, don’t buy it. To each his own. (Laughs)
There used to be a direct connection between the two that you couldn’t say too much because people wouldn’t buy your music and record labels would worry, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
No, I don’t think it can be because, especially now – again in the age of social media where you have a direct outlet to the world, not just to your fan base but to the world – I don’t think that dynamic exists anymore. The publicists and labels can’t worry about that in the same way because it’s like, look, you’re going to be who you are.
Especially once you’ve opened the floodgates. And you’ve opened the floodgates.
Yes, yes. (Laughs)
But some artists choose not to use their platform for political reasons. For instance, your collaborator on “Babe,” Taylor Swift, isn’t known for making political statements and she gets a lot of flak for that.
Yeah, she isn’t as politically outspoken as you, for example. Do you think artists have a responsibility to use their platform to speak out on matters of concern?
I think human beings have a responsibility. I definitely feel a calling within myself to speak my truth. I’m very outspoken in my own personal life as well so it bears to reason that I would be that authentic in my public life. Some people aren’t very outspoken, even in their private lives.
Have you prepared for the country conservatives who may have an issue with you broaching gun policy on “Tuesday’s Broken”?
Yes, but I feel really confident, Chris, in the sense that, look, what happens is everyone on the far margins scream and are terribly afraid that suddenly each of their rights are going to be completely obliterated by comprising at all. If you give anyone an inch, they’re gonna take a mile and pull you to the opposite pole – I don’t believe that. I believe that sensible gun control is possible. I believe we are in a challenging time right now with lobbyists and the NRA and different money powers, and I believe the waters are convoluted. I believe there needs to be tort reform within our congress and within the ways we vote on all of these issues.
Those are huge, broad issues, but at the end of the day, I believe it’s absolutely possible for us to do anything we want to. We can change the rules, we can remake the rules. We wrote ’em the first time. It’s possible to fix this. It’s possible to look at gun laws, it’s possible to look at mental health, and it’s possible to look at all of these pieces. We just have to be willing to do it and to elect the people who are going to do it.
Have you thought about how this album could bridge gaps between people who think like you and your conservative fanbase?
Look, art has many purposes. Sometimes it’s to entertain, sometimes it’s to inspire and sometimes it is even to provoke, and all of those are valid. What I hope we are able to do in Sugarland and in all of my music is to be able to inspire dialogue and to invite conversation. Rather than pressing the buttons, I want to sit in a corner, point a subversive finger and say, “What do you think about this over here? How could we make it better?”
To ask you a lighter question that’s tour related: Do you have a favorite Christian Siriano dress that you can’t wait to wear?
(Excitedly) Mmmm! There are several pieces I cannot wait to wear! I mean, he really did his thing on this, and we had such fun in this collaboration just because it already had a theme to it. So, he was able to then just take that and really have fun with it because the theme for the tour, visually and aesthetically, is this beautifully, other-world vintage circus-y look, so we had a lot of fun doing research for that.
How will the healing vibes of the album translate to the stage?
We try to make it feel transportive so when you leave you feel like you have been offered an escape and some asylum and some refugee, and that you leave feeling seen.
Sugarland is known for sneaking cover songs into the shows. Have you considered any cover songs that may fit the healing vibes of the album?
The fun part about the live shows is that over the course of the tour they will continue to evolve. We’ve got some cover choices and a remix situation that’s super, super funky and fun, and we also have a sort of an all-skate that we like to do at the end with all of our openers to come on and join us, and that’s usually a big, fun party.
I am sure that within that we will be able to figure out messages of unity; the potential is ripe for all of those messages. (Laughs) Right now, we’re leaning toward the fun party side, but that’s not to say that isn’t about unity too.
What do you hope your queer fans take away from this album?
I would harken back to our conversation regarding the tour: to feel seen. I think it’s such an interesting time where we are supposedly more technologically, in terms of ideas, connected than ever. But at the same time – the last song on the album, “Not the Only,” especially speaks to this – a lot of us still feel very alone and very unseen, and I hope that within the queer community, within the gay community, the trans community – the LGBTQA! All the letters! I hope that everyone feels seen, and let’s say again: celebrated.